Ash Studios was fined for hosting a play.
Ash Studios was fined for hosting a play.
courtesy Ash Studios

Dallas Art Space Ash Studios Found Guilty After Contesting Fine in Eight-Hour Trial

Ash Studios went to court in December to contest a citation issued to proprietor Fred Villanueva in March 2017 for allowing Upstart Productions to host a stage play on the premises of his live-work complex in Fair Park.

The fire marshal fined Villanueva $700 for not having a certificate of occupancy for his building. The C.O. on hand was from 1973 and under the name of a different owner; buildings must go through a new permitting process with each change of ownership or use.

In a hearing to dismiss the citation in December, Villanueva’s legal representation, Paul Saputo, argued that Ash Studios is a “social sculpture” and not a building in the traditional sense that would be subject to existing C.O. designations because of the nature of the activities there.

The art made by Villanueva and his creative partner, Darryl Ratcliff, is not always tangible, Saputo argued. It's an organization of people for activism or creative pursuits, or social sculpture, he said. Limiting their activities either by C.O. requirements or other regulations would be effectively destroying their art, and art is federally protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, he said.

Judge Michael Acuña did not dismiss the citation in that hearing, saying that the fire department’s need to ensure safety trumps creative pursuits. So a panel of jurors decided Ash Studios' fate in a trial yesterday.

During a wearisome eight-hour trial, which included a lengthy and rigorous jury selection process, Saputo instructed jurors that the burden of proof was on the prosecution (the assistant city attorney) to prove every piece of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt since this was a criminal case, rather than the standard of clear and convincing evidence, a lower burden of proof for civil cases.

If a juror had any doubt as to the prosecution's allegations about Villanueva, he or she had to return a verdict of not guilty.

Throughout the trial, the prosecution stood by the argument that the issue at hand was about safety and that Villanueva failed to follow simple rules that would ensure his studio complex is safe.

The prosecution spent much of the day establishing that Villanueva was “operating” or “using” the premises during the time of the citation, language specific to the fire code. This necessitated lengthy witness examinations of the two fire inspectors who issued the citation, asking them to recall Villanueva’s whereabouts during the time of the stage production at Ash Studios and his level of involvement with the project.

The defense’s argument hinged on showing that Villanueva’s ownership of the property doesn’t mean he was using or operating it at the time of the citation. Saputo argued that Villanueva isn’t affiliated with Upstart Productions, and he didn't charge the group a fee or make any money off the production, which could be considered him using the production for monetary gain. Saputo argued that Villanueva’s name isn’t listed anywhere on the handbill for the play.

Saputo likened the scenario to letting your child or spouse borrow your car. If they’re caught speeding, they’re the one issued a ticket, not you, the owner of the car, even if you’re sitting in the passenger seat (i.e., on the premises at the time of the infraction).

“We don’t put people in jail and we don’t fine them criminally just because they did wrong. People who do wrong, you sue civilly, you get that preponderance of evidence. We’re not in that court; this isn’t what you see on TV,” Saputo said. “You can do wrong and still be found not guilty when the state did not meet its burden of proof on each and every element of its case. What element did they not prove here today? That he used or occupied the building on March 30, 2017.”

During closing arguments, the prosecutor countered, “Art has no boundaries, but it does have a price. That price in today’s case was safety,” he told the jurors. “Safety is a serious matter, according to the city of Dallas and the Dallas Fire Department, to ensure that people are safe at all times, regardless of the situation.”

After a deliberation period, jurors found Villanueva guilty and issued him a fine of $100.

“It’s not quite a celebration. But we at least stood our ground,” Villanueva said after the trial.

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